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“Everyone Here Knows a Junior”:
Blackfoot Children and Their Books
Abstract

This column focuses on the early stages of my participatory, reader-response research with First Nations youth living on a reserve in Alberta. I am interested in the ways in which young readers reflect on their social, cultural, and place-based identities while reading culturally relevant, local fiction. I focus on the methodological design of my project, which includes reading discussion groups and the creation of place-journals. I reflect on the process of finding suitable research texts.

When I recall the books that shaped my early reading identity, I recognize that the most influential texts were ones where the pages of the book could be made meaningful on a personal level—usually through identification with a character’s sense of place or by perceiving the place as somewhere I had been, or as a reflection of the rural world that I lived and breathed in. I caught glimpses of myself in Kit Pearson’s Guests of War (1993) trilogy, in Cynthia Voight’s Tillerman (1981) series, and in Tim Wynne-Jones’ evocative depictions of rural Ontario in The Maestro (1995). These texts worked as mirrors, allowing me to better understand myself and the world that I was part of. Louise Rosenblatt explains this encounter with a text as a practice of “recreation” wherein the reader, drawing on past experiences, undergoes a “personally experienced evocation of the literary work” (179). As a reader I “recreated” texts (made them personal) by infiltrating them with my version of the world.

I recognize that I was (and still am) in a position of privilege as a reader. Reflections of my identity are readily available in texts. I do not have to look far to find stories about white, Canadian girls who grew up in a small town. In his reading memoir The Child [End Page 55] that Books Built (2002), literary critic Francis Spufford recalls wanting (through reading) to “see things [he] never saw in life. More than [he] wanted books to do anything else, [he] wanted them to take [him] away” (82). Like Spufford, I appreciate the importance of the text that takes me away or the one that that shows me aspects of the world (or myself) that I cannot access through any other medium. While I understand the value of books being windows into other worlds, I worry that young readers, especially those who are marginalized, cannot access books that reflect their experiences and identities. In a recent article in The Guardian, Myles Johnson—the author of Large Fears (2015), which features a Black, queer boy—writes that “when there’s no reflection of the self within any text, then there’s no understanding of the world as a truly validating and safe place.” All readers need texts that validate their world.

Research Context

I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow working with Aboriginal youth who live and attend school on a reserve in Alberta. My project emerged out of a concern that First Nation readers are not having opportunities to read and discuss culturally relevant fiction. Contemporaneously, within children’s literature and reader response scholarship, there is an omission of First Nation voices in our understanding of the ways in which young adults (YAs) respond to and engage with fiction. As my research shows, using culturally-relevant and local, place-based fiction has the potential to encourage adolescents to have discussions about their cultural, social, and place-based identities within and beyond the text (Spring, “Place and Identity,” “Where are you from?”).

In a Canadian context, there is a particular urgency for such research. In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its response to the Indian Residential School legacy. From the 1880s to the mid-1990s, approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools funded by the federal government and run by churches. Children were removed from their families and communities and were stripped of their languages, traditions, and cultural identities. Many experienced emotional and physical abuse. In its report the TRC calls this experience cultural genocide, defined as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group” (1). As a result, “families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity” between generations (1). In an attempt to “redress the legacy of residential schools” (1), the TRC has outlined ninety-four recommendations and calls to action. In contemporary Canadian communities, ongoing colonial practices of assimilation and appropriation continue to impact Indigenous cultures. There is a need for reconciliation work between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, including—and perhaps most urgently—young people.

Research Questions and Project Design

My current project is a community-based, participatory study with a group of twelve and thirteen-year-old First Nation youth who live and attend school on a rural reserve. Six female and four male readers have agreed to participate. While my project began in the fall of 2014, many ethical and logistical issues had to be addressed at the university and community level. I first met my participants in the spring of 2015. Within this column, I share my project design, reflect on my choice of texts, and offer some early observations about these young readers. While I am not able to offer any hard findings at this time, I hope that my early contemplations will be insightful for those who are working with children and youth, particularly those who are marginalized.

My participants have been reading and discussing several Indigenous texts. My overarching research aims are: a) to understand the ways in which these readers’ identities are tied to their understanding of social, cultural, and physical places; b) to understand how these same readers reflect on fictional constructions of place and identity; and c) to understand how and if the experience of reading culturally relevant, local fiction incites these readers to question the role of place within their lives. These questions respond to the TRC’s recent findings, which call for ways of integrating Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms as well as for building student capacity for intercultural understanding.1

Three methods of data collection are being used: reading discussion groups, the creation of place-journals, and semi-structured interviews. Firstly, I have organized a series of reading discussion groups during lunch and homeroom time. The teacher that I am working with recruited ten readers [End Page 56] she felt would benefit from the project or would be keen to participate. We plan to continue the reading groups over the current academic year (2015-2016) and possibly beyond. As outlined in the Tri-Council Policy on Aboriginal Research, demonstrating long-term commitment to the community is a valuable part of my work as a non-Indigenous scholar within an Indigenous community. I will engage in meaningful and ongoing relationships with my participants and the community members through the analysis and dissemination process.

I have conducted reading discussion groups in two previous research projects and have created them to be a safe space for young readers to share their responses. In my experience, young readers appreciate the openness and flexibility of this forum, where they are free from the structure of classroom or curricular demands (Spring). Each participant was provided with the text prior to meeting as a group. The discussion groups became a space for my participants to share their responses to the research texts. While I was present at these sessions, my role was minimal. I did not position myself as an expert but rather engaged in dialogue, questioning, and conversation alongside the youth (Wells; Chambers). Even if they had not finished the book, the participants felt as though they could contribute to the discussions as the conversations often moved beyond the text into discussions about their everyday lives or about other texts. Steven Bigger and Jean Webb explore how discussion group settings revolving around texts have the potential to “foster a sense of place” because young people “re-story their pasts” (140) through these discussions, a sentiment shared by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan who argues that language is a vital aspect of constructing our place perceptions.

Secondly, my participants are creating a place-journal containing visual and written responses, both to the text and to the ways in which they consider place to be influential within their own lives. Visual methods are useful for accessing a range of stories and experiences that are often difficult to articulate verbally (Cele; Rose). In their journals, however, I also offered my participants the opportunity to create written narratives (Azano; Charlton et al.). I provided my participants with a list of possible entries to consider (e.g., sketching, photo-elicitation, mapping) but left the decision of what to create ultimately up to them. The place-journals will allow my participants to develop their own self-representations by sharing stories that they value.

Lastly, when the reading discussion groups have finished, I will conduct semi-structured interviews with each participant. These interviews will facilitate an interpretation of my participants’ understandings of the world, accessed directly through their point of view and in their chosen words. One-on-one interviews will allow each participant to explore information that might be of personal nature and will afford me an opportunity to work with each participant on their own. The interviews will be a space where I can refer back to what I already know about these participants through the discussion groups and their place-journals.

Finding the Right Text

Choosing the “right” texts was a difficult first step. I wanted my chosen texts to encourage my readers to discuss their cultural, social, and place-based identities. It was therefore necessary for the texts, as closely as possible, to reflect my readers’ experiences of the world using accurate, non-stereotypical representations of what it is like to be an Indigenous adolescent.

I began by reading blogs like Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Debbie is a member of the Nambé Owingeh Tribe in New Mexico. The aim of her blog is to discuss texts that “accurately portray Native people and our nations … in all of our humanity.” She explains,

far and away, what Native kids get are fun house mirrors like the ones we see at carnivals, fairs, and theme parks. The ones that take your image and distort it. That make it look funny. Or uber cool. Or scary. Or stupid.

While warning of texts that do not offer accurate representations of Indigenous peoples, Reece offers insightful reviews of texts that are, in her mind, authentic. I also referred to Reading While White: Allies for Racial Diversity and Inclusion in Books for Children and Teens. This blog is written by a group of White librarians who address themselves as “allies in the ongoing struggle for authenticity and visibility in books” and who feel that they “have the responsibility to change the balance of White privilege.” Blogs such as these [End Page 57] celebrate and disseminate information about diversity in children’s fiction.

Before selecting my texts, I met with the classroom teacher and librarian to discuss some options. These conversations were an important step in the research process because I wanted to ensure that the school was involved in the design of the project—getting their approval of the research texts was essential. I had originally contemplated using Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996), a coming-of-age story about a sixteen-year old Dogrib Native named Larry. Based on the age and reading ability of the students, it was not appropriate. The school library had some class-sets of novels that I could choose from, most of which were written by non-Aboriginal authors. While some included First Nation characters or themes, the representations were often stereotypical.

I decided to begin with Sherman Alexie’s award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007), which is illustrated by Ellen Forney. Alexie is a member of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation near Washington. In 2014, Alexie’s text was listed as one of the top ten most frequently challenged books for its offensive language, sexual content, and violence (Schaub). Alexie has since spoken about the dangers of censorship, particularly in relation to texts that represent minority populations. He writes,

when some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens …. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations … they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.

(Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”)

Based on my knowledge of the students’ current and past reading habits and choices, I decided that Alexie’s text was one that my participants would have found and read on their own, independent of this project. While Alexie’s protagonist, Junior, is fourteen, and therefore slightly older than my readers, several participants were reading above their grade level, and the librarian heartily approved of its use in the project.

Some Early Reflections

Within this subsection, I share some of my early observations, drawn from my time with the participants thus far. At this point, each of the ten participants has read the research text. While I needed to ask probing questions in the first instance (i.e., Did you like this text? What did you like about it?), the participants quickly began conversing without direct prompts. At our first meeting, one of the participants asked if I could read the first few chapters aloud, to refresh their memories. When I read the line “‘Junior, sweetheart,’ Mom said, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have any money for Oscar’” (Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary 10), the participants began to laugh. I paused, asking them what was so funny. One of the students explained, “We all have an uncle, cousin, brother, or brother’s friend named Junior. Everyone here knows a Junior. And all of our mom’s say “sweetheart.”

Alexie’s novel details Junior’s coming-of-age on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Early in the novel, we learn that Junior has decided to leave the reservation school in order to attend the all-white school in Reardan:

“Us Indians were the worst of times and those Reardan kids were the best of times.

Those kids were magnificent.Those kids were everything.Those kids were beautiful.Those kids were beautiful and smart. Those kids were beautiful and smart and epic.They were filled with hope.

I don’t know if hope is white. But I do know that hope for me is like some mythical creature”

(50).

Junior leaving the reserve for Reardan, and his best friend Rowdy’s reaction to his decision, incited a conversation that went beyond the text. Several of the participants explained to me that they, too, have friends who attend school “in the city,” particularly if their parents work there. One of the male participants is thinking of leaving next year to “be part of [End Page 58] the track team.” When he shared this with me, a female participant responded, “we have a track, here.”

I have not had an opportunity to look through their place-journals, but I have observed the participants with their journals in hand. A female participant shared with me that she is writing an autobiographical narrative about her cousin who committed suicide last year. Another female participant asked if she could do her own replication of Forney’s illustration (seen on page 57), where Junior is split down the middle. One half of the page represents his “White” identity, the other half his “Indian.” Forney’s illustrations accentuate Junior’s identity struggles, particularly the questions he has about his culture, race, and identity. The graphic elements, in particular, have spurred my participants to have discussions about their own identities as youth living on a reserve. Like Junior, many of them wonder whether they will need to leave the reserve and what cultural implications this will have for them and for their families.

Alexie’s depiction of Junior’s life on the Spokane reservation, albeit different from theirs, is already encouraging my readers to engage in conversations about where they live and what it is like to be from there. The text is helping my participants visualize their own diversity by allowing them to (finally) catch glimpses of themselves within the pages.

Our Reading Fieldtrip

When I initially approached the principal about my project, she was keen to increase her student’s access to texts. The librarian explained that there is a library on the reserve that recently opened; access is complicated, however, as it is located in a neighboring community. None of the students in my book group had ever had a library card, and only one had visited the public library on the reserve. The city library is over eighty kilometers away, again reducing the probability of access. In the week preceding summer holidays, I arranged to take my readers into the city on a “reading fieldtrip.” This outing was organized with the classroom teacher, who accompanied us. We agreed on several stops including the public library, Chapters, a used bookstore, and two comic book shops. Part of our objective was to show the participants how to purchase or borrow books for their summer holidays. At the library, the students were registered for library cards. The librarian took them on a tour of the children’s and YA section, demonstrating how to find and sign-out books. My funding budget included purchasing one text at Chapters for each student to read before September, as per the principal’s wish.

Strengths and Limitations

Readers make texts personal by infiltrating them with versions of their world. Margaret Mackey makes an explicit connection between reading and place, writing, “reading fiction and mapping one’s local surroundings work in tandem” (423). Despite much excellent work in the fields of reader response and children’s literature criticism, there is a gap in the conversations we are having about what it means to be an Aboriginal YA reader in today’s world and how places—social, physical, fictional, and real—are navigated and experienced from their perspectives. In order to respond to the calls for action addressed in the TRC, this gap in the literature must be filled.

My decision to use culturally relevant fiction stems from my belief that individuals who have a strong grounding in their cultures and histories are empowered to contribute to society in meaningful ways. This in turn promotes resilience and reduces vulnerability. While some texts dangerously perpetuate the exclusion of First Nation voices, there are a number of texts that have the potential to help shift First Nations and non-First Nations relations towards more ethical ones. I argue that reading and discussing culturally relevant, place-based fiction texts encourages First Nation readers to celebrate their identities and to analyze their worlds.

Over the past year, I have earned the trust of Elders, community members, and other gatekeepers; navigated numerous political and ethical boundaries; and began working with a group of young people who do not necessarily share my cultural background or worldview. As a non-First Nations researcher, I recognize power imbalances and the fact that academic research has been used to colonize. I have worked diligently to ensure that my research is child-centered, ethical, and focused on the lives, experiences, and values of my participants, their cultures, and their community.

The potential limitation of my project is that my findings will represent the temporal dimensions of place, place-identity, and the reading experience. My findings will be bound to these participants living [End Page 59] in these geographical locations, reading these texts, in these precise moments of time. However, my findings could be extrapolated to other historically marginalized populations or groups. My project design will work as a model for researching with young readers in diverse international contexts.

Erin Spring

inline graphic ERIN SPRING is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Erin has a PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge. Her work focuses on the intersections of place and identity construction in the lives of Canadian adolescent readers.

WORKS CITED

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007.
—. “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 9 June 2011. Web.
Azano, A. “The possibility of place: one teacher’s use of place-based instruction for English students in a rural high school.” Journal of Research in Rural Education 26.10 (2011): 1-10.
Bigger, S. and J. Webb. “Developing environmental agency and engagement through young people’s fiction.” Environmental Education Research 16.3–4 (2010): 401-414.
Cele, S. Communicating place: methods for understanding children’s experience of place. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2006.
Chambers, Aidan. Tell me: Children, reading and talk. Stroud, Kent: Thimble Press, 1993.
Charlton, E., et al. “My place: exploring children’s place-related identities through reading and writing.” Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education (2012): 1-17.
Mackey, Margaret. Reading from the Feet Up: The Local Work of Literacy. Children’s Literature in Education 41 (2010): 323-339.
Pearson, Kit. The Guests of War Trilogy: The Sky Is Falling, Looking at the Moon, and The Lights Go On Again. Toronto, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1993.
Reading While White: Allies for Racial Diversity and Inclusion in Books for Children and Teens. 2015. Web.
Reese, Debbie. American Indians in Children’s Literature. 2015. Web. Accessed October 15, 2015.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2007.
Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Schaub, Michael. “The most banned and challenged books of 2014.” Los Angeles Times. 13 April 2015. Web.
Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. “Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans.” Ch. 9. Panel on Research Ethics. 2014. Web. 10 September 2015.
Spring, Erin. “Place and identity in young adult fiction.” Geographies of Identities and Subjectivities, Volume 4, Geographies of Children and Young People. Eds.
Nancy Worth, Claire Dwyer, and Tracy Skelton. Singapore: Springer, 2015.
—“Where are you from?: locating the young adult self within and beyond the text.” Children’s Geographies (2015): 1-20.
Spufford, Francis. The Child That Books Built. London: Faber, 2002.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” 2015. Web.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Language and the Making of Place: A Narrative-Descriptive Approach.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 81.4 (1991): 684-696.
Voight, Cynthia. Homecoming (The Tillerman Series). New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1981.
Wells, G. “Dialogic inquiry in education: building on the legacy of Vygotsky.” Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry. Eds. C. Lee and P. Smagorinsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 51-85.
Wynne-Jones, T. The Maestro. Toronto, Ontario: Groundwood Books, 1995. [End Page 60]